AFTER years of furious resistance to any suggestion that he accept some blame for the extensive upgrades at his private home in Nkandla, President Jacob Zuma effectively capitulated on Tuesday night.
At about 10.15pm, his office issued a statement that he was “proposing a solution” that would hopefully resolve the matters under litigation in the Constitutional Court.
While the political fallout had many angles, the litigation related to whether he should refund some of the expense, as recommended by the public protector.
Zuma has agreed to do so, although some caveats in his statement may suggest a rocky road to a settlement, if any.
The capitulation, like the scandal itself, raises existential questions for the African National Congress (ANC).
Does it still remember and abide by the reasons for its existence, or has it become an instrument for deflecting and defending the proclivities of a president who does not believe the rule of law applies to him? There is also reason to ask whether it still retains its democratic promise, or has degenerated into a personality cult held together by fear of exclusion from the ANC’s informal, but entrenched, patronage network.
FOR ANSWERS, it is necessary to look back at what happened in November 2012 when Zuma distanced himself from the extensive network of buildings surrounding his home. He was joined by ANC MPs, including current Justice and Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha, in offering flimsy explanations for why Parliament did not need to probe the matter.
Zuma’s argument was that because “the government” had taken a decision to add new buildings and features — ostensibly to protect him adequately — he had no obligation to account for the excess. Apparently having forgotten that he was, in fact, the executive head of government, he instead proposed that the questions be answered by his ministers and their officials.
Over the years, this position has claimed significant political scalps including two ministers of public works, Gwen Nkabinde-Mahlangu and Geoff Doidge. Several state bureaucrats also found themselves facing misconduct charges, all of which was a desperate bid to shift the blame from Zuma.
It also saw then police minister Nathi Nhleko, once a respected senior state bureaucrat, reduced to an object of derision, as he offered implausible theories about the luxury fittings at the president’s home being, in fact, safety features. The cheesy video that sought to reposition a swimming pool as a fire-fighting instrument has gained notoriety, while Nhleko’s reputation lies in tatters.
He must feel particularly wounded that, after producing a laughable report explaining why Zuma should not pay back a cent, his boss is now agreeing to refund what he felt so strongly he shouldn’t. This new position makes things worse for Nhleko.
However, these problems pale into insignificance compared to the damage that has been caused to the ANC and Parliament.
For the party, it meant facing an antagonistic voting population in the largely urban Gauteng, and many provincial party officials believe that the scandal, combined with e-tolling, were the main reasons it nearly lost the majority in that province in the 2014 general elections.
NKANDLA, as the scandal has come to be known, is synonymous with the brazen looting of state resources for personal gain. It is also emblematic of what many believe is a level of arrogance in the ANC, which thumbs its nose at voters when they are struggling to make ends meet.
The obstinate, Stalingrad approach of the ANC parliamentary caucus to the opposition’s attempts to extract some accountability from Zuma reduced the party to a flock of sheep who would defend anything. This was even when doing so clearly incensed the public and damaged the party’s historical standing.
Fervent, fanatical and seemingly removed from the reality of rising public anger, ANC MPs and leaders spared no one as the Zuma defence effort moved from outrageous to institutionally violent. Unwarranted vitriolic attacks on Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, including attempts to belittle and frustrate her in public, became the norm.
They culminated in ANC MPs refusing to grant her office much-needed additional resources. By the end of last year, it was clear that if the public protector were to get any support, it would be from opposition MPs. This was an odd development, since it was the ANC, in its Ready to Govern document before the 1994 elections, that insisted on the establishment of a powerful and independent office of the public protector.
In many ways, this contradiction demonstrated how the ANC, progressively since Zuma became its president, has moved away from positions that had gained it public trust. Its capitulation to a demand from the opposition, and on which the party and its senior members had expended so much capital, raises yet more serious questions.
Most important, is whether Zuma cares about the party at all, or simply uses it either to gain leverage or protect himself from personal and political threats. Since the ANC now has to change its position to support him, it will have to explain why, if its position up to this point was about principle, it could not insist that the president as its deployee, remained true to its ideals.
Instead, the ANC has egg on its face, and will have to find a way to glorify a decision that appears to be forced on Zuma by legal circumstances. There is also reason to ponder the damage done to Parliament. Its proceedings in the past two years have often degenerated into violence, culminating in incidents that were hitherto unthinkable.
The police were called in to manhandle and beat up members of the opposition, while the state security apparatus infringed on the independence of Parliament by jamming the cellphone signal in the House. The eviction of opposition MPs for asking the same question in different ways — when the president was planning to pay back the money — became commonplace.
The conduct of Parliament’s speaker Baleka Mbete became a focal point, as her office suffered unprecedented reputational damage. At times, she demonstrated an anxiety to protect the president, and stooped as low as referring to the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Julius Malema at a political gathering as a cockroach.
IN MANY ways, it is less important how the opposition moves from this point than it is for the ANC to think seriously about how to rescue itself from the personality cult it has engendered. While some have started speaking out against the proclivities of the president and those who enjoy his patronage or exert influence over him, the party continues to lose credibility.
One of its priorities must be to start acting in a way that demonstrates adherence to principle, rather than being a personal protection instrument of whoever happens to be its president.
In a sense this is ironic, since the current governing faction complained of a similar trend when it traversed the country, urging ANC members to remove Thabo Mbeki as leader of the party and later as president.
The ANC’s inability to see that it has become the same animal it claimed to despise, but in a precipitously worse and frightening form, demonstrates how far it has fallen from its founding principles.
The country it governs is changing and it may soon be too late to reclaim its place and promise. Its refusal to separate itself from the proclivities of its president may be the one failure that puts an end to its hegemony.